Bioethics Blogs

Normalizing Sexually Violated Bodies: Sexual Assault Adjudication, Medical Evidence, and the Legal Case by Sameena Mulla

What constitutes evidence of sexual assault?

I am seated in a courtroom as a sexual assault forensic nurse is asked to explain, by a prosecutor, the basic tenets of genital anatomy. During the sexual assault trials I observed in Milwaukee, WI, testimony is highly orchestrated. Sequestration orders bar the presence of witnesses from the courtroom unless they are testifying. The first witness, almost always the complainant, is not present when the forensic nurse testifies. Early in the forensic nurse’s testimony, the prosecution provides a body map, and the map is introduced as an evidentiary exhibit so that the jury can consider this anatomy lesson in its search for truth. The map depicts two views of a vulva, referred to as a “vagina” in the shorthand of the court, more or less from the perspective of someone standing or sitting between a patient’s legs as they are held in stirrups. One of the views on the map includes a detailed view of the cervix, which can be visualized with the assistance of a speculum. The images are neat and simple, with black line drawings that belie the fleshiness of human bodies. The absence of the victim-witness during the forensic nurse’s testimony further alienates the corporeality of the body from its sanitized renderings. The sequestration order reproduces the work of the drape in gynecological examinations, separating persons and pelvises (Kapsalis 1997; Mulla 2014). As adjuncts to the testimony of the victim-witness, these maps serve as the basis for the jury to move forward in their deliberations over whether or not there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime, in this case sexual assault, has been committed.

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